The Internet, we know, is the greatest invention since the Twinkie. It allows us to publish any time, all the time. But that doesn’t mean we have to. Given that the news business has lost an estimated 15,000 journalists since 2000, it does not directly follow to go from “we’re facing a serious transformation in our industry” to “let’s write as much as possible as fast as we can.” It’s not hard to understand the impulse to do more with less. Hamsterism is a natural reaction to a novel set of conditions—a collapsing model, a new paradigm, a cacophony of new voices, fewer people filling an infinite hole. And through the haze we can glimpse an online model that equates Web traffic with advertising dollars, though as we’ll see, the connection is far from clear.
But newspapers aren’t wire services, and wires aren’t blogs. News organizations must change with the times, but nowhere is it written in Newsonomics (or whatever thrown-together, authoritative-sounding book is being read like Torah by news managers these days) that news organizations should drift away from core values, starting with the corest of core—investigations and reporting in the public interest. These are not just “part of the mix.” They are a mindset, a doctrine, an organizing value around which healthy news cultures are created, the point.
In a report this year, PEJ cites editors at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and The Boston Globe, who recognize the problem and explicitly reject Wheel-like thinking. PEJ quotes Globe editor Martin Baron acknowledging that there may be less content in the paper, “but it is vetted to be unique and enterprising,” of higher interest and higher impact. Exactly.
So let’s recognize the Wheel for what it is: a choice.
3. The Wheel infantilizes reporters, strengthens P.R.
This is just logic. If reporters lack the time to gather, analyze, and reflect on information, then they will have less leverage to confront the institutions on their beat.
And make no mistake, we are living in a time of P.R. ascendance. In their recent book, The Death and Life of American Journalism, Robert W. McChesney and John Nichols estimate that, even in the 1970s, when newspapers were in their heyday, the percentage of news generated from press releases was in the 40 percent to 50 percent range, a fair-enough guess. Since then, while journalism has withered, P.R. has bloomed like a rash. The authors document that in 1980, the ratio of P.R. people to news reporters was manageable, about 0.45 P.R. specialists and managers per 100,000 population to about 0.36 journalists. Today, P.R. towers over journalism, with 0.90 pros per 100,000 to just 0.25 journalists.
In Ken Auletta’s New Yorker piece, cited above, White House officials expressed dismay at how little time reporters have to talk to them. “Everything is rushed,” Auletta writes, and quotes then White House Communications Director Anita Dunn. “‘When journalists call you to discuss a story, it’s not because they’re interested in having a discussion. They’re interested in a response. And the need to file five times a day encourages this.’” It encourages leaning on P.R., too.
A sense of empowerment comes through in the tone of P.R. professionals. When Mark Pittman, Bloomberg’s late, great investigative reporter, asked for information on where the AIG bailout money went, here was the response:
Treasury spokeswoman Brookly McLaughlin said, “The Fed had the lead on this one: It’s their loan. I don’t know how I could be more clear.”
Why are you bothering us about a few dozen billion unprecedented secret U.S. government bailout dollars?
“[Y]ou should call AIG,” said Fed spokesman Calvin Mitchell. “I doubt that we will be talking about AIG’s CDO portfolio.”
Run along, big fella.
As it happens, Pittman, and The New York Times’s Gretchen Morgenson a couple of days earlier, revealed the recipients of that bailout money: Goldman Sachs and other Wall Street investment banks. But Pittman and Morgenson aren’t on the Wheel. They are arguments against the Wheel. This leads to Hamster Rule 4, or what I like to call “The Paradox of the Wheel.”
4. The Wheel never sets the news agenda, it only responds to the agendas of others